Signature line: “Your average American male is in a perpetual state of adolescence — you know, arrested development.” – Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth from TV’s “Arrested Development.”
That utterance from Bateman’s cult series, which made a comeback on Netflix last year, could be applied to his own career as he continues to distance himself from his child-star past. He takes a step in the right direction by starring in his feature directing debut as a disagreeable foul-mouthed lout who crashes a kids’ spelling bee and picks up a doe-eyed Indian tyke as a sidekick he refers to as “slumdog” in the just-opened R-rated comedy “Bad Words” – aka “Bad Santa” with dictionaries.
Career peaks: Bateman was born into a showbiz family on Jan. 14, 1969, in Rye, N.Y. His father, Kent, was a producer, director and screenwriter while older sibling Justine played Michael J. Fox’s under-achiever sister on the TV series “Family Ties.” An actor since the age of 10, Bateman was Michael Landon’s adopted son on “Little House on the Prairie” and would go on to star in a number of popular sitcoms in the ‘80s, including “Silver Spoons” opposite Ricky Schroder and “The Hogan Family” with Sandy Duncan.
Bateman switched to the big screen with his 1987 debut in the horror comedy sequel “Teen Wolf Too.” He inherited the werewolf role from Fox, who broke out in the original film and went on to bigger things like “Back to the Future.” Unfortunately for Bateman, No. 2 wasn’t exactly a howling success and he soon returned to TV, appearing in a string of shows that barely lasted one season.
His luck finally took a turn for the better in 2003 when he was cast in the Fox sitcom “Arrested Development.” As single parent Michael Bluth, Bateman was the straight man to a clan of dysfunctional oddballs and the Ron Howard-produced show attracted a modest but devoted following during its three seasons. Suddenly, he was a member of the cool club, doing commentary for internet talk radio’s “The Majority Report” during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, hosting “Saturday Night Live” and being recruited by Vince Vaughn for such Frat Pack comedies as “Starsky and Hutch,” “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” and “The Break-Up.”
In 2007, Bateman proved capable of handling more challenging material in director Jason Reitman’s “Juno” as a stunted married man-child who unwisely develops feelings for the pregnant teen whose child he is supposed to adopt. He similarly impressed in Reitman’s 2009 effort “Up in the Air” as a callous boss of a company that helps businesses fire their employees.
Biggest assets: Through-the-roof likability, a top-notch professional attitude, a finely honed comic delivery and the ability to work well with others. Ricky Gervais, never shy about scathing putdowns, has offered only raves about Bateman’s “comedic confidence” after the British comic co-directed the actor in 2009’s “The Invention of Lying.” He has said of Bateman’s laser-like deadpan prowess, “There may be 50 ways to play a scene in drama, but sometimes there’s only one way to nail a joke.” Also, Bateman know his own strengths: “I really enjoy playing that everyman part because that part is us, the audience. And you need somebody inside a comedy to tether the absurdity to reality. Guys like Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Sacha Baron Cohen, they do things you love to watch. I like to do the other half.” But sometimes you do want to see how that other half works, too.
Awards attention: “Arrested Development” was the source of his only award win, a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical series in 2005. He was in the running again this year for the revived version. He was also nominated for an Emmy for “Arrested Development” in 2005 and 2013.
Latest misfire: There are several contenders for that title, including 2013’s Internet-age cautionary tale “Disconnect,” a rare dramatic outing for Bateman that failed to connect with audiences. Although “Identity Thief,” which teamed Bateman with pistol-hot funny lady Melissa McCarthy, grossed an admirable $134.5 million, it earned miserable reviews with only a 19% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the biggest turn-off for both critics and moviegoers was probably “The Change-Up,” a crude body-switch farce that paired Bateman as a family-man attorney with Ryan Reynolds as a no-account out-of-work actor. The critics did not mince words. From The Observer: “Like the copious pooh that his baby son squirts into Bateman’s mouth during a nappy change, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”
Biggest problem: Bateman rivals Paul Rudd for seeming to be being unable to turn down any supporting humor-required role that comes his way, and being the best part of a subpar vehicle will only get you so far. Not that he gets offered that many choice top-banana opportunities. As a pragmatic Batman has said, “I’ve been offered a couple of leads in some movies that really suck. I mean, you know, if they are offering me the lead, the script ain’t great. The stuff that’s good, I’m a little further down the line.” Even when he is a co-headliner as in “Identity Thief” or 2011’s “Horrible Bosses,” Bateman tends to be upstaged by others. As for his work beyond comedies, few but the Bateman faithful probably remember that he was in 2007’s “The Kingdom,” 2008’s “Hancock” or 2009’s “State of Play.”
Gossip fodder: Although no match for Charlie Sheen when it comes to gonzo public behavior, Hollywood bad-boy style, Bateman went through his party-hearty period in the ‘90s. As he told Details magazine in 2009, “It was like ‘Risky Business’ for 10 years,” he says of the decade. “My parents were out of town, they left me a bunch of money, the car, and the house, and I didn’t know when they were coming home. I’d worked so hard that by the time I was 20, I wanted to play hard. And I did that really well.”
Yet his TV image as a boyish clean-cut guy was so ingrained by then, the tabloids never took notice. Or as longtime friend and occasional co-star Jennifer Aniston has joked, “That’s because he never dated me.” He slowed down after marrying singer Paul Anka’s daughter Amanda in 2001 (they have two daughters, 7 and 2) but only turned sober after his wife issued an ultimatum. After attending an AA meeting with a friend, he finally settled down.
Career advice: Yes, Bateman might be an admirable team player. But enough with such humble sentiments as, “I don’t look for Jason Bateman vehicles. I played a ton of team sports growing up, and team wins are just as gratifying.” He is not in gym class anymore but in the midst of middle age at 45. Taking charge of your destiny behind the camera while putting yourself out front has plenty of rewards as well. After all, Bateman didn’t become the youngest person to join the Directors Guild of America at 18 when he oversaw three episodes of “The Hogan Family” just to be on the sidelines.
With “Bad Words,” he has finally placed himself at the center of R-rated comedy as the dirty-talking leading man. Sure, the script is derivative in parts – besides “Bad Santa,” there is more than a nod to Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show.” But critics, as they are wont to do on Bateman’s behalf, have mostly been kind. As the Newark Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whittey writes, “‘Bad Words’ serves, at least, as proof that Bateman can do a variety of parts, and direct a smart economical comedy — and if Hollywood is as smart and economical, it will give him the chance again.”
Next step: And guess what? Bateman already has another helming gig in the works, one with a bit more quirk and an Oscar-winning co-star in the form of Nicole Kidman. Namely, “The Family Fang,” based on Kevin Wilson’s gleefully screwball bestseller about a couple that are performance artists who recruit their own children as part of their bizarre routines. Sounds like Wes Anderson twee territory but it will be intriguing to see what Bateman will do with such outside-the-box material. Not that he has given up on doing more run-of-the mill comedies as backup, including “This Is Where I Leave You,” directed by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) about a Jewish family forced to follow religious traditions to fulfill their father’s final wish, and “Horrible Bosses 2,” both due this fall.